Though David had some experience at a volunteer-run community radio station in Oregon, BETWEEN THE COVERS was his maiden voyage as a podcaster. He was hosting a health show at the time, and when the show was thin on guests, he interviewed willing authors. Serendipity struck: his first guest went on to write one of the biggest bestsellers of the last ten years.
How did you get BETWEEN THE COVERS up and running? What was your level of experience with podcasting when you launched the show?
I am not a technologically savvy or business savvy person, but with the help of a friend experienced with web design and coding we created a rudimentary website and got the show up on iTunes. It was the first time I could monitor and measure the size of the listening audience and I was surprised by just how fast that audience grew once the show was not just a broadcast, but a podcast as well. A certain momentum quickly amassed as well as the motivation to keep that momentum going. Another factor that made the transition from interviewing people on health to discussing writing and books easier was the good luck of having Anthony Doerr as my first author interview. He wasn’t a household name then, he wasn’t famous. He was a writer’s writer and had just come out with his book Memory Wall. He was so improbably enthusiastic about my questions and so generous with his answers that I couldn’t have had a more welcoming or surprising first experience.
What has been the most challenging thing about the podcast so far?
The most challenging thing about the podcast is my desire to make it my career, to find a way to transition out of my day job and have this be what I do for a living, not just in terms of the number of hours I put in, but financially. There was a time, relatively early on, that I needed to make a choice. The show audience was growing but the costs were growing, too. At the beginning, I probably had a couple hundred dollars a year in costs—it was this low because my friend was helping me out with the tech stuff for free. But as the costs started to grow, I realized it didn’t make sense to have a show where it would cost me more the better the show did. I knew I needed to either step back or do some crowdfunding of some sort. Around that same time the writer Jesse Ball, who I had recently had on the show, emailed me and asked if I could use copies of an out-of-print book of his, co-written with an Icelandic writer, Thordis Bjornsdottir and published by an Icelandic press that had since gone under. He shipped me boxes of these rare books, perhaps a hundred copies or so. I started crowdfunding on Patreon and Jesse’s book was one of the main reasons that this quickly turned the show around so that growing the show also grew my income. People are far more likely to support something if they get something back, a token of appreciation in return for their support, and this book was the main thing I had to give back for the first several years of this endeavor. That situation was only going to last as long as I had books, however, a finite supply that people wanted but that would someday run out. Once again, another moment of fortunate happenstance occurred. When I was nearing the end of my supply of books, the publisher Tin House (Ed. one of Courtney’s publishers) approached me about the possibility of adopting the show. They weren’t going to hire me, I wouldn’t get a salary, but they would design a new website, rebrand the show, help with publicity and most compelling to me, they would offer a large variety of merchandise to entice people to support me.
What has been the most pleasurable surprise?
There are SO MANY. Getting to sit across from and engage with writing and art with some of the most dynamic writers today. There is nothing like reading a book when you know you get to have these conversations once you are finished. It is also an opportunity to follow my curiosities as a writer, and has had a great effect on my own writing because of this. It has led me to read things I would never have read and to grapple with questions of craft I would have never grappled with. Some of the surprises have included being asked to nominate a writer or writers for major literary awards, to be a judge for literary fellowships, or being asked to be on stage with writers at ticketed public events. Needless to say, I never dreamed I’d be onstage in conversation with Zadie Smith. I still have to pinch myself that that happened. The biggest surprise, however, is that all of this led to a book with Ursula K. Le Guin (Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing), that after our third conversation together—one each in fiction, poetry & nonfiction—she suggested we build around these three investigations and make a book out of it. That has led my life down so many unexpected paths, from the Hugo Awards in Dublin to writing about her for everyone from the Poetry Foundation to SMODA, one of Spain’s foremost fashion magazines.